Feminist Aspie

Don’t You Mean “Person With Ableist Derailing”?

on September 22, 2015

Earlier today, I came across this great comic strip by Christine Deneweth about her experiences with schizophrenia and neurotypical privilege (link includes a transcript and image descriptions), in which she discusses the media’s damaging portrayal of schizophrenia, the pressure to “act neurotypical”, and the risk of workplace discrimination and even unfair incarceration faced by schizophrenic people. It’s really worth a read. Go on. I’ll wait.

After I read the comic strip, and because apparently I never ever learn my lesson, I read the comments on Everyday Feminism’s Facebook post promoting the piece – only to discover that most of the comments didn’t engage with the actual content at all, and instead criticised Deneweth’s use of the identity-first term “schizophrenic” (as opposed to person-first language e.g. “person with schizophrenia”). In other words, mostly neurotypical people telling the artist she’s somehow managing to stigmatise herself rather than thinking about the actual stigmatisation and ableism she’s described as coming from neurotypical people. Because obviously neurotypical people themselves are never the problem amirite?(/sarcasm) To be fair to Everyday Feminism, they responded to the worst offenders with this article by Caley and Creigh Farinas about the problems with policing disabled people’s identities (also really worth a read), but the fact that articles like this have to exist just goes to show that this same thing happens to disabled people talking about their experiences all – the – time.

Personally, I am autistic and I (like many others, although of course not everyone) prefer to use identity-first language to describe this fact. This is because I don’t think “autistic” is a bad thing; it’s not a negative quality, it’s a neutral quality. I feel that shoehorning in “person-with” where an adjective better suits the sentence sends the message that you can’t see “autistic” as a person without trying to separate the autism from the person, which isn’t possible; autism is a part of who I am, and I wouldn’t be the same person at all without it. Using identity-first language doesn’t mean I’m defining myself exclusively though autism – to give just one example, my gender doesn’t define me either but you don’t often come across the term “person with femaleness”! In my opinion, if neurotypical people are so keen on “putting the person first” then they need to demonstrate that in their actions, not just their words.

But my opinion doesn’t matter one iota here. The only person whose opinion matters is the person describing their own disability, and nobody has the right to police how someone identifies. It doesn’t matter if you’re some sort of professional expert on the relevant condition. It doesn’t matter if you know someone with the relevant condition (something that neurotypical people, apparently unable to imagine any of us having our own perspective, often equate to being that someone to claim authority). I don’t even think it matters that much if you share the relevant condition, although of course you remain free to use different language to describe yourself. You do not have the right to police how someone else describes themselves, especially regarding marginalised groups you don’t belong to.

The main reason this infuriates me so much has nothing to do with any of my concerns about person-first language itself. Instead, it’s because abled people seem to use this same-old-same-old argument to prevent meaningful conversation about disability and ableism, and to conveniently avoid engaging with the problems being highlighted (and, in turn, their possible roles in those problems).

Neurodivergent people are saying, over and over again, “we are being discriminated against, we are being portrayed unfairly and harmfully, we are not given adequate support and accommodations, we are mocked and bullied, we are excluded from the workplace and social spaces and other aspects of public life, we are sometimes incarcerated or abused or even killed just because our brains are wired differently to yours”.

But the only thing neurotypical people ever seem to take from that is “you’re the one oppressing yourself with your sentence structure”.

Telling someone how they should and shouldn’t describe their disability – especially at the expense of what they’re actually saying – is ableist. Or maybe it’s an action with ableism. Either way, it really needs to stop.


16 responses to “Don’t You Mean “Person With Ableist Derailing”?

  1. May says:

    This is a very interesting post for me to read, and I’m grateful that I read it. I am very probably guilty of exactly the kind of policing you describe (although I don’t think I have ever told someone they shouldn’t describe themselves in a particular way) and hadn’t considered the fact that by separating the condition from the person I’m potentially both labelling the condition as inherently negative and also creating an artificial distinction between a person and an aspect of that person. That’s given me food for thought.

    What is your view on the phrase “special needs”? I was reading a discussion earlier today in which several people referred to “a special needs child”, saying “the child is special needs” and it grated on me – surely the child HAS special needs? I have depression, but depression is not what I AM. It’s not even an ableism thing, I don’t think – it’s a grammar thing! But perhaps that is no different from what you were talking about in this post?

    • Thank you! 🙂

      One thing I should probably note is that I don’t think there’s necessarily one catch-all answer to which structure is “better” – it’s a controversial topic even just re: autism, and everyone has their opinions (even if that opinion is just “I really don’t care”). When I’m talking about another individual I try and use the same language they use to describe themselves if I can, although I appreciate that might not necessarily be easy to come across sometimes!

      You’ve mentioned a couple of different other factors that also come into play. The first is whether the person can be imagined without the condition and still be the same person (if that makes sense?) and while I’m not sure there’s a strict binary, I’d definitely argue that autism does not fall into that category whereas it seems like depression might? (Going entirely from things other people have said there, I don’t have any experience with it myself). The other thing is grammar, which I hadn’t really thought about much until your comment (thank you!) but which might play a bigger part in this than I realised. “Special needs” acts as a noun, without an equivalent adjective phrase, so “has special needs” flows much better in the sentence. Honestly, I think if the person/identity-first language debate hadn’t become so charged and full of abled people telling disabled people how to identify, there wouldn’t be much issue with using “autistic” and “has/with autism” interchangeably depending on what sounds better in context of the sentence. At the same time though, “autistic” is an adjective that exists and advocates of person-first language often do a lot of sentence-twisting to avoid it, which I find unnecessary (although others will disagree, like I said it’s a controversial topic).

      On an only semi-related note, in my last few years of school, certain people started using and “special” or “spesh” (with the obvious implication of “special needs”) as a general insult, similar to how people use the R-word and other slurs. I don’t think that’s a problem with the phrase itself, more a problem with their attitudes, but I thought it might demonstrate a more positive side to “has/with” etc!

  2. alexforshaw says:

    “[S]ends the message that you can’t see “autistic” as a person” is the best phrasing I’ve seen yet as a rebuttal to the imposition of person-first language against the wishes of somebody who self-describes using identity-first terms.

  3. Patricia says:

    So agree. The initial correcting is bad – the arguing about it after having it explained is worse. I like to throw the “if you have to SAY person first to SEE person first, you have bigger problems.”

    Thanks and love,

  5. I hadn’t considered that it’s a derailment, or sometimes even an outright dismissal, of disabled voices. I mean, it is, but I hadn’t considered that as the motive. I’ve always seen it as arrogant or even just ignorant. Excellent post, eye opening.

  6. Aspie Anon says:

    Having worked in education and healthcare, the emphasis was always on person first. Perhaps this is because it can be easy to look at behaviors or symptoms and not see the person underneath. I heard this especially when it came to referring to someone as a ‘schizophrenic’ or a ‘borderline’.
    I only recently learned that some folks on the autism spectrum refer to themselves as autistic. I have heard the argument about autism being such a part of who they are, that it’s all they know, that it is part of their identity. But for those of us who weren’t diagnosed until we are adults, ‘aspie’ or ‘autistic’ as terms may have never been part of our identity. ‘Weird’ or ‘freak’ were more likely to be used as descriptive terms.

    I respect other people wanting to be called autistic, but I don’t like when I have read online (not your blog of course) other autistics saying that everyone on the spectrum should or wants to be identified that way (as opposed to person first). I’ve even seen on Facebook someone tell someone else they aren’t an aspie because aspergers isn’t in the DSM anymore.

    Perhaps some of my resistance to fully embrace being called autistic is from my experience of people telling me I don’t have aspergers – just because I don’t fit their mental image of someone with aspergers. (Of course now I technically don’t have aspergers – I have an autism spectrum disorders, according to the DSM).
    Sorry for such a long and rambling reply. I found your blog today while searching about autism/overload/heat – your post on that was amazing so I started reading more of your blog.

    • Thank you so much! Yeah, it’s definitely more complex than one-or-the-other language-wise; tbh I’ve definitely been that person charging in all “ACTUALLY WE PREFER AUTISTIC” and, er, that was the day I learned not to assume everyone else in the conversation was neurotypical! My problem isn’t with person-first language in and of itself necessarily, but with abled people telling us how to identify, particularly when they do so instead of actually engaging with what we’ve said.

  7. Jennifer says:

    I was somewhere on FB. Referred to myself as being Autistic. Immediate response, in seconds, from someone telling me that, as the godparent of a person with Autism it is very important for them to tell me that I am not defined my my Autism.

    I sent back a reply, also within seconds, that I was among a large number of adult Autistics who don’t believe that using English in it’s normal structure means that something defines me. I also pointed out that I have enough trouble communicating without having to do grammatical gymnastics to satisfy the audience (though that last thought was not as well put). “This issue is so important to me,” the godmother wrote. Well, to me it isn’t an issue. It was an inescapable factor in my ability to write the post she responded to. Which was, for the record, about my mother, with the Autism just a factor in caring for her

  8. […] Aspie wrote about how nobody has the right to police how someone identifies, including what terms they use to describe their […]

  9. dennis says:

    The reason it’s derailing is that person-first language in truth says:

    1) there is ***one*** correct way of being.

    Corollary to the above: the person who’s *gaming* you (via tone-policing) is telling you they’re closer to this ideal than you are – they’re better than you (which means their instinctual narcissism is increasing. ..)

    2) not being of correct ‘presentation’ – by being ‘insane’ / schizophrenic / schizoaffective (my own personal misdiagnosed condition) implies one has chosen to ‘break place’ – rebel against your betters, those having higher status/rank within the dominance hierarchy.

    Corollary to the above: it is a given that you’re doing so on purpose; breaking place is always a dominance move – and hence it will be punished. More, it must be punished disproportionately, because rebellion is not merely the act of a traitor; the goal of all rebels is usurpation. (namely, business as usual for most dominance-obsessed non-autistic individuals)

    There are more, but I’m not entirely sure what they are right now.

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